What should our partners be required to believe in order to become a vital part of our community? This is an important question we are working through at Austin City Life. As pastors we are to watch the doctrine and conduct of our own lives and our churches closely. Developing doctrinal essentials is one way to effectively guard the flock from destructive theological influences. We have not “arrived” in working this out; in fact, we have only just begun. I expect to post on this topic quite a bit over the next year.
Essentials and Non-Essentials
We affirm primary points of doctrine that are “essential” for partnership with Austin City Life. We believe that the church should be unified in the historic essentials of the Christian faith and flexible on secondary matters. We strive to embrace and embody the saying by Puritan Rupert Meldenzie (commonly attributed to Richard Baxer): “In the essentials unity, in the non-essentials diversity, in all things charity.”
But how does this really play out? Ask us in five years. For now, essentials are required for partnership that line up with the Apostles Creed and a basic Evangelical Statement of Faith. I have written some on the Apostles Creed here. Regarding secondary points, doctrinal adherence in certain non-essentials is required for leadership (Elder, Deacon, or Ministry Leader). We articulate these through our distinctive ecclesiology: Reformed in Doctrine, Baptist in Sacrament, and Missional in Nature. In the vein of Acts 29, we are first Christians, second Evangelicals, third Missional, fourth Reformed, and fifth baptistic (our addition). So while we have a wide theological door at the front of the church, it narrows with level of commitment and leadership responsibility toward the back of the church. Leaders are held to higher theological and personal standards.
The Four Self Church
We are cultivating a Four-Self Church, a concept that was tweaked by Paul Hiebert in his Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues (probably the most influential missiology text I have ever read). Most church planters are aware of the Three-Self Church; Hiebert adds a fourth—self-governing, self-sustaining, self-propagating, and self-theologizing community. We are trying to strike the delicate balance between teaching theology and cultivating theologians, between downloading Wayne Grudem and discipling Christians who address the unique theological issues in our Keep Austin Weird culture.
Theological Unity & Diversity
Thus, we are trying to intentionally culitvate a community that theologizes, that addresses personal, ethical, social, and cultural issues from personal and communal theological reflection on Scripture. Of course, regular training in hermeneutics, ethics, and culture are be necessary. In the Spring, we will be offering a soon-to-be-staple course called Interpreting Scripture and Culture which equips the church to self-theologize with integrity. Ultimately, we shepherd from a position of Reformed in Doctrine, Baptist in Sacrament, and Missional in Nature, while also agreeing to promote charitable differences within our community on non-essential points of doctrine. We encourage rigorous, winsome, biblical and theological reflection and conversation.